Secrets of the pyramid
A condenser mic for the rigours of the road
AKG's new C5900 condenser mic is as much a departure from tradition technically as it is aesthetically. Ian Masterson lifts the grille and finds himself seduced by a love triangle
Every microphone manufacturer has its classic models; the gems of a range which cease to blend in with the rest of the crowd and eventually become legends in their own right. They gain acceptance as the standard against which all further developments in transducer technology are assessed, and find themselves labelled with tags such as 'ubiquitous' or 'essential'.
AKG have more than their fair share of models such as these: the C1000S, C12 and C535 - to name but a few - are all common currency in recording studios the world over. Not content with cornering the studio market, AKG have, for some time now, been devoting their energies to producing microphones for live use; mics that take the best of that recording expertise and package it in more robust, road-ready housings.
The C5900 is the latest development in this quest, and has been launched as a new addition to the already-popular Tri-Power series. Based on the proven capsule design of the C1000S, with the sought-after performance characteristics of the C535, this hypercardioid vocal mic promises much on paper.
However, the real test of its worth could only ever be on stage, and AKG took the unusual step of including the views of both gigging musicians and sound engineers in the inception and design of the C5900.
According to AKG, the comments they received from hire companies, engineers and performers proved to be invaluable in addressing some of the problems traditionally associated with live microphones. To this end, the C5900 includes several unusual features which merit closer scrutiny.
The first of these you notice as soon as you lift the mic from its tough plastic gig-case - it's triangular in shape. Well, not completely triangular, but the body and grille are composed of three smooth, rounded sides, which apparently make for a more ergonomic 'fit in your mitt'.
Certainly, the C5900's distinctive shape allows it to fit snugly into the palm of your hand - more so than traditional cylindrical designs - and the tough zinc alloy casing is finished in a sweat-repellent black coating.
Apparently, since the triangle is the strongest shape in structural engineering, this moulding also makes the grille much less vulnerable to denting. But to make doubly sure that their product doesn't get decapitated on tour, AKG have also included a rather cunning little shock-absorber into the grille mounting. Instead of connecting to the main body of the mic by a screw thread, the top of the mic is fixed on a sprung bayonet catch, which not only compresses to absorb shocks - it also allows for extremely easy access to the internal windshield for cleaning and repair. This inclusion directly reflects the demands of frustrated hire companies everywhere, and can only be a good idea.
All-in-all, the external styling of the C5900 - replete with subtle green pinstripe - is extremely practical, not to mention sexy. As far as the internal gubbins are concerned, only one thing really needs to be said: C535.
Anyone who has ever encountered the C535 studio condenser will realise how crafty AKG have been in modelling the acoustic character of the C5900 on this highly-regarded ancestor. The C535 simply has one of 'those' sounds: the sort that adds shine, depth and warmth to an otherwise bland studio performance.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, the C5900 attempts to reproduce everything that made the C535 so fantastic for vocals, while maximising gain before feedback by adhering to a tight hyper-cardioid pickup pattern. This is no easy task, since the modifications necessary to ensure feasible live use don't sit comfortably with smooth-as-silk polar response. And yet this is the circle AKG seem determined to square.
Another nod at studio tradition has been incorporated into the internal capsule suspension itself. You will doubtless be familiar with the sprung 'spider' affairs usually employed to mount studio condensers, reducing unwanted interference from vibration. AKG have taken one such 'spider' and miniaturised it, locking it into the mic underneath the grille - again, on a sprung elastomer suspension - and then mounted the capsule within it. The aim is to reduce handling noise, one of the biggest problems with hyperactive vocalists.
"The C5900 could give several studio condensers in the same price bracket a run for their money"
To test this (and the all-important audio character) out, I brought the C5900 down to a large nightclub, where an extremely fine Turbosound PA, an extremely fine dance band and an extremely psychopathic vocalist named Bruno were waiting to soundcheck.
At the risk of giving AKG's press officer a coronary, I let Bruno loose with the C5900 on a long Klotz cable. The C5900 has to be phantom-powered, and for test purposes I directed it through a Soundcraft Spirit desk straight into the amplification system, while Bruno bounced and thrashed across the stage. Twice he swung the mic through the air, and twice it bounced violently off the wall, the floor and the keyboard player in quick succession. A quick check revealed not one scratch or dent on the mic grille or body (cue sigh of relief from AKG's press man). The combined efforts of the mic's bayonet system and the keyboard player's forehead had absorbed all the impact.
Since the previous 'ubiquitous' vocal microphone employed at the club had generated enough handling noise to be sampled and looped as a rhythm track, anything was bound to be an improvement on this front. My initial scepticism about the internal 'spider' cage mounting proved unfounded, as the C5900 proved to be reassuringly rumble-resistant.
It would be impossible to eliminate all handling noise from any live microphone, simply because of the nature of the gigging environment, but the in-spider technology really does seem to have something going for it.
Not content with abusing the C5900 on stage, I also listened more carefully to the sound it produced in a more critical studio environment. Slightly too 'tight' in its pickup to offer the warmth associated with the C535, or the brilliance of the C1000S, the C5900 could nevertheless give several studio condensers in the same price bracket a run for their money. Overall, its studio ancestry is more than a little obvious.
Should you be contemplating the purchase of a decent live mic for your next round of tour dates, give Rod Stewart a ring. He took both corded and wireless versions of the C5900 out on his Unplugged tour to handle all the vocal duties - and his sound engineer will happily swear that no other mic carried that world-famous guttural tone better than the new AKG. It also toned in rather nicely with his new green Spandex trousers, no doubt. But even without the endorsement of Mr Stewart and company, I believe AKG ought to be pretty proud of the C5900. It looks set to join the ranks of those all-time classic microphones - and may yet be a legend in its own lifetime.
More from: Harman Audio, (Contact Details)
Review by Ian Masterson
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